Tue | Oct 19, 2021

The Arc of Joan

Published:Friday | July 31, 2015 | 12:00 AMDaniel Thwaites

This latest curve in the arc of Joan Gordon-Webley's career has elicited some excellent commentaries, reminding everyone of the porous membrane separating the political parties. People cross the border quite frequently, although ordinarily with less drama than the great Comrade Karl Samuda!

In our context of politicised geography, sometimes, whole communities defect, such as when Rema converted. I suppose this is the political equivalent of when the early 20th Century Chinese warlord, the Christian Feng Yuxiang, baptised thousands of troops using a firehose. There is nothing new under the sun.

Anyway, a number of prominent government ministers were once Labourites (Atkinson, Hanna, Hayles), and coming from the other direction, remember that during the last Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leadership race, even Audley had some 'splainin' to do about youthful People's National Party (PNP) exuberances.

There is a grain of truth (but only a grain) to the accusation that Jamaica is really governed by the JLPNP or the PNJLP, as sufficiently large numbers of the political class have little problem cozying up in either tent, and in fact see the parties as roughly interchangeable alternative vehicles for self-advancement. Nor is it surprising, especially now that ideological divisions have, to put it mildly, somewhat receded (or perhaps even reversed).

But that history of many conversions, however colourful, is not quite the point. The issue is: What about JGW's switch makes it so contentious and emotionally evocative?

Note that the PNP has also received an application from Noel Donaldson, former JLP mayor of Montego Bay. The contrast between the two is telling. Whereas I expect the PNP will accept Donaldson without demur, JGW's baptism as a Comrade has been anything but a controlled process. In fact, it has excited extraordinary passion and opposition.

I don't know Joan, but I know she has a large reputation as a fearless political combatant who puts the 'active' in 'activist'.


Good MP


On the other hand, throughout the '80s she was my member of Parliament (MP), and in general, my sense is she was a good one. She was active, present, and the impression was that she was easy to contact and receptive to it. In keeping with Jamaican perception of what an MP is supposed to do, she did it. What is more, even her critics (and I would hardly have been counted as an uncritical fan) admit that the suspicious fire one-side, her administration of the NSWMA was a success. Again though, to reach this conclusion, the suspicious firing-off of PNP people also has to be placed one-side.

That's what you get with Jamaica's Joan: a mixed arc.

Interestingly, one reason advanced against her is that she isn't a 'democratic socialist'. I could spend many columns unpacking that charge in this day and age. But if that's the litmus test, suffice it to say that I?m not convinced that most of the PNP's cabinet would qualify. There are democrats who aren't socialist, socialists who aren't democrats, and some who aren't either.

Anyhow, the point is that JGW's lack of socialistic credentials seems like a contrived reason to exclude her.

But Joan was an iconic Labourite - the arch-Labourite, if you will - which makes the switch harder to understand. Plus, the ordinary progression in matters of this sort is from engagement, to disillusionment, to disengagement, and only then to a switch and re-engagement with another party. But that common arc appears to have been short-circuited. It seems like only yesterday that Joan was active in the JLP.

More than all that, I think her application has ignited a debate about healing old wounds, the burden of the past, and specifically, the legacy of the '70s. The ghost of Roy McGann hovers over the discussion, not only because JGW was the JLP candidate who squared off against him, but because it's a reminder of a very different time. The contrasts it evokes are quite stark, even though some of the same players persist. That itself is a study: the youthfulness of Manley's cadre compared to the creeking ancient regime. In JGW's rejection there is a kind of yearning.


deep trench


The PNP struggles with the legacy of the '70s, and JGW's application represents not just a line, but a deep trench in the sand. A not inconsiderable part of the party's identity is tied up in trumpeting the social gains made then ('nuh bastard nuh deh again', 'equal pay for women', 'JAMAL'), and a denial of the devastating economic setbacks and their lasting consequences (one-third of GDP wiped out), and perhaps even the anxiety that the two might somehow be connected. Mrs Gordon-Webley has stepped into that maelstrom.

It's worth remembering that the 15th Century Joan of Arc was eventually condemned, so I can't imagine why this Joan is sticking around to be judged.

The road to Damascus, it turns out, is a dual carriageway, and it is not at all empty. I suspect there will be more conversions. For instance, what about Tufton?

If he isn't given a path in the JLP (and the signals from West Central St Catherine aren't good), it won't take a Daniel to translate for him the writing on the wall. He has, after all, instructed more Jamaicans to "put the X beside the head" than most PNP politicians, and surely, that immortal piece of campaigning must count for something.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.